Israel-Palestine: How will far-right government tackle the ‘demographic problem’ ?

Palestinian protesters step on posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in Gaza on January 4, 2023 (AFP)

Feras Abu Helal

Middle East Monitor  /  January 6, 2023

Notions of exporting Palestinians to Europe will not work, as refugees continue to demand their right of return.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month established the most extremist government Israel has ever seen. It includes two ultra-nationalists, Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party, both considered disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s and designated a terrorist group by the US.

According to former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Ben-Gvir is “the most irresponsible man in the Middle East” – comments he made after the latter’s latest provocative visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque complex. Smotrich has also been criticized for harbouring a fascistic ideology, and was accused of plotting to attack a major highway during the 2005 Gaza disengagement, charges he has denied.

The most explosive aspect of their ideology, however, involves pushing Palestinians to leave their homeland. In 2021, Smotrich told the Knesset that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, should have “finished the job” and kicked all Arabs out of the country in 1948. He has also said that prominent Arab politicians and other Muslims who do not recognize Jewish rule should not remain in Israel. Ben-Gvir, meanwhile, said in a televised interview that Israel should “encourage” Palestinians who “hate or do not believe in Israel” to leave their homeland. 

Israel has about 9.7 million residents, around 74 percent of whom are Jewish and 21 percent of whom are Arab, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. The Jewish population share has been gradually declining since 2009, when it stood at 80 percent, while the Arab percentage slightly increased during that period.

Democratic quandary

For many rightwing Israelis, the shifting demographics pose a major concern – particularly the declining majority of Jews across historic Palestine, which includes the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, where the Jewish majority “falls to barely half”, according to the Economist.

Population parity has long been a core issue in Israeli politics. For some, it represents a dilemma for the country’s so-called democracy, because a true democracy cannot exclude a group of people based on their race or ethnicity. Yet, if Palestinians become the majority and gain the right to vote across historic Palestine, then Israel’s status as a “Jewish state” would be threatened. 

The two-state solution has been proposed as the only way to solve this dilemma, but the far-right politicians who have dominated Israeli politics in recent years do not accept this strategy. Thus, the notion of expelling Palestinians from their homeland has been gaining prominence in the country’s political discourse.

Such concepts are not exclusively aimed at Palestinians. Ben-Gvir has said he also wants to deport Jewish politicians who are “disloyal to the state of Israel” to Europe. And Smotrich has advocated cancelling the “grandchild clause” in Israel’s Law of Return, which allows third-generation Jews to immigrate to Israel. He recently said that 70 percent of immigrants from former Soviet countries were not Jewish, calling this a significant threat to the nation’s Jewish majority – a “Jewish time bomb that must be dealt with”.

Apartheid state

At the same time, Israel has prevented Palestinians from returning to their homeland, despite many UN resolutions to the contrary. Israelis across the political spectrum have opposed the Palestinian right of return, and yet, even they now face a risk of being removed from the apartheid state they supported.

One thing is certain: any attempts to expel Palestinians from their homeland to solve the “demographic problem” will not succeed. For more than seven decades, successive generations of Palestinians have continued to believe in their right of return. The “return key” symbol is present in Palestinian homes across refugee camps, the occupied West Bank, Gaza, JordanLebanon, and indeed around the world. Arab countries have already taken in many Palestinian refugees, leading to significant economic pressures. 

Prominent Jewish scholar Avi Shlaim once said: “Antisemitism is not an Arab phenomenon, antisemitism is a European phenomenon. Zionism isn’t an eastern phenomenon, it is a European phenomenon; it is a solution to the problem of the Jews in Europe [after the Holocaust].” Yet, through the creation of Israel, the Europeans also created what is now called the “Palestinian problem”. Ironically, the Kahanists in power want to export this problem to Europe

European countries cannot accept such plans, particularly amid the rise of far-right, anti-immigration politicians. Rather, the only viable solution is to give the Palestinians who still dream of their homeland the right to return.

Feras Abu Helal is the Editor-in-Chief of Arabi 21 news website